The Healer’s Rune Sample: Chapter Three

The Healer’s Rune Sample: Chapter Three

The Healer’s Rune

Chapter Three


Slow down! Sabine chided herself, dropping her head in the prescribed manner. She didn’t want to draw the attention of the Rüddan patrol as she left the village. She needed to relax.

Exhaling a deep breath, she concentrated on appearing casual. She held the scrolls in one hand, parallel to her arm, with her cloak draped over to hide them. The day had grown hot and the humidity thick as the sun arched toward its zenith, so carrying her cloak would not attract notice. Unfortunately, her arm was growing sweaty beneath the layers of folded cloak, and her hand was slippery. Her grip on the scrolls felt loose. What if she dropped one?

To keep that from happening, she pressed both arms close against her torso until the mound of scrolls and cloak felt fused to her ribs. She was at the edge of the village now. Only one more cluster of ramshackle houses to go. Few people trafficked the roads beyond Khapor; once she was away, she could adjust her bundle.

Even as Sabine finished the thought, she heard steps on the dirt road ahead of her.

“Stand where you are, Human,” a Rüddan soldier commanded, his syllables clipped and sharp.

Sabine froze, her pulse doubled. Torian, Star of the Morning, she prayed, don’t let him find the scrolls!

The guard approached, close enough that, head bowed, Sabine could see him from the lower ribs down. “Why are you walking out during early curfew?”

She hesitated only long enough to unravel the Rüddan’s syntax, then said, “I’m Sabine Rhyonselle, a healer. I live a little way—”

“The traitor’s trial ended last watch,” the soldier accused, his tone probing. “Yet still you wander out. Curfew is set to tomorrow’s dawn. Explain.”

Sabine stared at the officer’s knees, careful to be obvious in her observance of the laws that governed Humans’ interactions with Rüddan. The mention of her position as healer should have been sufficient explanation. Healers might be needed during any watch; they were exempt from curfew.

Unless the Human recently executed for treason also happened to have been a healer. She lifted her eyes briefly. Hadn’t Tayte warned her to be careful?

“I …” Sabine began, scrambling for an alibi that would be believable but would not implicate anyone else. It was hard enough to think with the guard standing over her, but the sound of horse’s hooves pounding in the distance compounded her distraction.

Wait a minute. Horse’s hooves? Why would someone—anyone—be approaching Khapor from this direction? Traffic on this road was limited to Rüddan, and they only traveled it to change troops stationed in the village. Since the current troops had only been here for half the usual time, this road should be empty for three more months, at least.

“Human—” the Rüddan prompted, the edge in his voice hard and dangerous.

Sabine swallowed. She should not be hesitating like this.

The sound of the horse was near, now.

“I was with a patient,” Sabine managed at last, her answer intentionally vague.

The rider approached, slowing to a walk before stopping just beyond Sabine’s peripheral vision. The Rüddan guard turned his back to Sabine to deal with this new arrival. Sabine resisted the urge to sigh in relief.

The rider spoke, his voice winded and urgent. The guard replied, and the two conversed briefly in Rüddanese, speaking only two or three times each before the rider touched his heels to his mount’s flanks and spurred into the city at the same rapid pace as before.

The guard turned back to Sabine.

“Go now to your dwelling,” he commanded. “Stay there until tomorrow’s dawn. Curfew is in effect until third watch, even for healers.”

“Yes, my lord.” Praying silent thanks to Torian, Sabine dipped her already-bowed head and hastened away.

Something was going on, something apparently unexpected and very big—the large contingent of guards at the execution; the way the Rüddan captain had suddenly silenced Mariel; the extended curfew. Somehow, they all fit together. But what could it mean?

One of these days Sabine needed to learn the Rüddan language.

Bree, her shaggy black hunting dog, met her at her gate, with a wagging tail and a facial expression that always reminded her of a goofy grin.

“Hello, lady.” Sabine scratched the dog’s ear with one hand while she kept Auda’s scrolls hidden in her cloak with the other. “I’m glad to see you, too, but I can’t play right now.”

She hurried up the gravel path to her house. Ignoring the whisper that suggested she was neglecting the dog, she opened the door and snuck inside before Bree caught up.

“Wait here,” she ordered, closing the door as the dog approached. “Warn me if we get any unexpected visitors.”

She crossed the floor of her main room and skirted the table situated in front of the fireplace. Choosing a stone at random from the middle of the hearth, she pried it up from its companions. Although the scrolls would be better hidden beneath the fire or behind it, they would also be harder to access and might be damaged by the heat. She did not even consider choosing a stone at the hearth’s edge—that was almost certainly the first place a suspecting Rüddan would look and, besides, it would be easy to kick away. So she picked one from the middle and dug a deep, narrow hole.

She moved the displaced dirt outside, concealing it beneath some of the roses that lined the path to her door. Bree followed her back into the house, eager to play. Sabine obliged. She waited until late that night, after even the Rüddan must be asleep. Only then did she remove the first scroll from its hiding place.

Shooing Bree outside once more, Sabine lit a candle and positioned herself at her table, her back to the hearth. She regarded the scroll with trepidation, eager to open it, yet wary of what it might say. Finally, when the night was so old as to be the dark morning of a new day, she unrolled the sheet of crisp parchment.

Auda’s tight handwriting covered the thin sheepskin, leaving empty space only between the lines. Sabine smiled—her teacher was ever efficient—then forced herself to read the words instead of just looking at them.

The Age of Alliances was a prosperous time for the races of Ceryn Roh. While all four of the dominant races benefited from widespread peace, prosperity was seen most in the close, mutually beneficial relationship that existed between Humans and the Aethel.

Sabine frowned, then re-read the first two sentences. A beneficial relationship with the Aethel? How could that be? For as long as could be remembered, the extinct elfin race had been Humanity’s worst enemy. That’s why the Alliance forged with the Rüddan during the War of New Dawn was originally so important. They provided the magic necessary to defeat the Aethel, rescuing Humans from the Fey’s tyrannical rule. Why would the Humans of that age maintain a relationship with such a dangerous enemy?

Unless they were not aware of the danger.

Sabine huddled over the scrolls for an entire watch, pausing to stretch only once. She read of a time when Dryht, Rüddan, Human, and Aethel governed Ceryn Roh equally, represented by a Council of Races comprised of twenty representatives, five from each race. All the races lived together in large cities unparalleled in stature and grace, built by Human ingenuity, Rüddan and Aethel magic, and the Dryht’s deep communion with nature.

The scrolls went on to detail the depths of friendship between the races, especially Humans and Aethel. Although they never intermarried, children were often fostered between Aethel and Human houses, and individual families formed lasting bonds that cemented them to the other race as more than friends.

What happened? Sabine rubbed her eyes, displacing the sandy fatigue collected in the corners. If we used to get along so well with the Aethel, then how did we become such bitter enemies?

Although she could speculate—Aethel pride and greed were notorious, even though their race no longer existed—exhaustion was beginning to exert its influence. Auda’s small writing blurred together. Sabine hid the scrolls, extinguished the candle, and went to bed. Lying beneath a thin sheet, she quickly fell asleep.

 

In her dream, Sabine ran through the forest as if swimming through tar. Her arms pumped laboriously, her biceps strained. Focusing on escaping whatever it was that pursued her, she moved her right foot, then her left, then her right, then her left again. The motion of each step lasted an hour. Her blood drummed a heavy rhythm in her ears.

She urged her feet to move faster. Some unseen thing watched as she ran, observing her effort to outrun her pursuers. Its presence neither friendly nor malicious, it did not interfere in any way. It simply watched.

Voices pierced the air, rising in volume. The villagers of Khapor were behind her now, spreading out to form a half-circle as they drew closer. How many were there? It did not matter; two would be enough to overpower her. Or a large one, like the blacksmith. Then, when they captured her …

No! Don’t think about it! Focus on running.

A faint bark sounded in the distance, followed by another, then another until the forest rang with excited baying. Terror flooded her, exhorting her to move faster. Gritting her teeth, she shoved through branches that reached out to tear her clothing.

At last, she stumbled into a clearing.

In the middle of the clearing stood two ancient elms. Elise stood between them, with her arms wrapped around Kenrick’s neck, her lips pressed to his. A black raven with eyes of different colors perched above, looking from Elise to Sabine, then back.

Kenrick raised his head, his eyes filled with guilt and pity. His mouth framed Sabine’s name, but she fled back into the forest. Don’t think about it. Run.

The ground trembled beneath her feet in sharp spasms. A cave rose before her, casting trees and dirt aside like drops of water as it tore through the moist soil of the forest floor. While the mysterious observer continued to look on, the cry of Sabine’s nephew echoed within.

Payne. Sabine hesitated, her nostrils assailed by the wet smells of rotting leaves and decay. He’s sick. Why didn’t Elise tell me?

The voices in the surrounding forest grew louder. The villagers would find her soon, but she could not abandon her nephew. Maybe I can save him this time.

This time?

The thought reverberated through her mind, but she could not pause to consider it. Harassed by an uneasy sense of having done this before, Sabine stepped into the yawning darkness of the cavern.

Once again, she arrived too late. The small body lay decaying on the floor.

No! Sabine recoiled, then backed out of the cave and into the forest. Elise! Why didn’t you tell me?

The barking of the dogs escalated to a frenzied yip. They closed in, spurring the villagers forward. Behind her, the blacksmith shouted. Somewhere nearby, the observer watched.

Sabine tried to move, but it was so hard to breathe.

Don’t think. Run.

The heat of canine breath warmed her heels now, fettering her muscles. A raven flew overhead, harrowing her with his wings. Grasping hands grazed her back …

Hands! Hard hands grabbed her from behind, pinching her arms in a savage grip. She opened her lips to scream but could force no sound out of her mouth. The hands dragged her back to the voices, barely distinguishable now under the barking of the dogs. Someone thrust a sack over her head.

What will they do to me? It’s not my fault Payne died. I was summoned too late!

The sound of barking surrounded her. The raven’s wings continued to beat around her head.

Stop barking at me! Please, it wasn’t my fault!

 

Sabine’s eyes popped open.

Everything was dark. Her breath felt hot on her face, too close somehow. Cold sweat trickled down her forehead, making her temples itch. Like in the dream, when they put the bag over my head … Repulsed, she shoved away the sheet that covered her face.

Somewhere, a dog barked. Her dog. Bree.

Why is Bree barking? Sabine wiped her eyes, heavy with sleep, then mussed the tangled curls of her hair, scratching circulation back into her scalp. Yawning, she stood and lumbered the few steps to her window.

A full moon still floated in the sky, pouring a pale morning light the color of thin milk over the trees, gardens, and lawn behind her house. Sabine scanned her yard. Bree was across the lawn, a large, shifting stain of black silhouetted against the backdrop of a vegetable garden. Is that Aethel-touched dog barking at the wall?

It was unlike Bree to bark for no reason. Even so, everything appeared normal. Stifling another yawn, she walked from her bedchamber to the main room and opened the door.

“Bree!” Sabine shouted. The dog stopped barking. Moments later, an unruly coat of wavy black fur with eyes sat on the doorstep, the tip of her tail wagging as she waited for her mistress to let her in.

Sabine moved aside as the dog entered. Casting a last glance over her path of shadowy-white gravel edged by scattered rosebushes, she closed the door.

“What was going on out there?” She scratched the dog’s ears, then crossed the room to place a teakettle over the embers of the fireplace.

Bree yawned, then turned in a circle and lay down in front of the fireplace, near the half-wall that divided the house into two rooms. Sabine leaned over to scratch the dog’s neck.

“It must be nice to have your life.” She rubbed her fingertips over Bree’s ribs. “To be able to forget the painful things.”

Bree sighed, then closed her eyes. Sabine chuckled. “I know, I know. I’m complaining to a dog. You think, as long as I’m awake, I might as well do something useful, don’t you? Perhaps you’re right.”

Pushing away from the table, Sabine crossed the room and gathered some herbs. Measuring the ingredients for her healing salves, she silenced anything else her memories had to say.

###

“Come on, Bree. Outside.”

Bree sprinted out the door, barking as she ran through a dozen small, gray and black speckled doves breakfasting on the lawn. The birds shot into the sky, a startled cloud of flapping wings, then settled to the ground once more after the dog disappeared. Sabine grabbed a large bowl, then followed Bree’s trail around the house, intending to do some work in the gardens.

She found Bree behind the house, sniffing a path of grass nestled between two small vegetable gardens. Her nose tore a line through a thin sheet of beaded dew. Sniffing out whatever had disturbed her the night before, she traveled over the grass to a wall of cracked gray stone.

Curious, Sabine watched to see what the dog found.

Ivy climbed the six-foot-high wall at regular intervals, forming jagged leaf columns separated by five-foot expanses of stone. The ivy borders gave the wall a sectioned look, as if each pair of leafy columns framed a stone gateway.

Sabine stepped closer, examining the wall for some clue that might tell her what had excited Bree the night before.

Pale sunlight glinted off the gray surface, igniting minute blue and green sparks of color deep within the stone. Sabine didn’t remember seeing those flecks of color before. Intrigued, she circled the vegetable garden to her right and examined the next ivy-bordered section.

She found no trace of color within the rock there or in the next section that she inspected. A large pine blocked the fourth section, but the fifth looked the same as the others. None of them contained the color-infused bricks she had found in the first part of the wall.

Returning to the original portion, she scrutinized it more carefully. With the exception of the small blue and green spots, it looked identical to the rest of the wall. These bricks seemed to be a shade lighter than the others, but that could be because this was the only part of the wall that stood in the sun all day. Whatever the reason, Sabine found nothing to indicate the cause of Bree’s avid interest the night before.

She turned away with an inconclusive, “Hmm …”

Setting her bowl on the ground nearby, Sabine harvested tomatoes, then stopped short, arrested by the sight of a large raven alighting in the nearby pine tree. As if settling in to someplace familiar, it shrugged its shoulders and ruffled its tail feathers, then stared at Sabine with prolonged intensity.

Sabine returned the stare, provoked. Could this be the same raven she had seen in the ruins? Unbidden, the fable of Dryht who could shape-shift into ravens niggled at the edge of her thoughts.

Suppressing a shiver, she returned her attention to the garden, which brought back memories of her father.

Although the previous sennight marked the third year of his death, Sabine still felt his presence in the gardens. The meticulous way he planted the vegetables, grouping them by height and type, spoke to her of his pleasure in detail and order. She’d tried to maintain that order for the sake of his memory, carrying it to the herb gardens she’d planted on the sides of the house last year. But her roses bordered the white gravel path in a slapdash, haphazard fashion. Planted during the first year of her tenancy in quiet rebellion against her father’s neatness, they bloomed in a riotous clash of color every summer, a silent testimony that a little disorder can be a good thing. Her father used to grunt and shake his head whenever she tried to explain that to him. Even now, the memory made her laugh.

Sabine sneezed, then scratched her nose. Inhaling the tangy smell of fresh tomatoes, she eyed the leafy green vines in dismay. Entirely too many of the bright red orbs hung from the plants, and her bowl could not hold another one. Perhaps she should take a few to Auda the next time she went into the village.

At the edge of her vision, the raven shifted. She was just about to shoo the audacious rogue away when a faint sound caused her breath to catch.

The metallic jingle of horse harnesses rang in the distance, accompanied by the low thunder of many feet marching on a dirt road. Bree’s snout jerked up from a pile of pine needles, a high-pitched whine emanating from her throat.

Sabine cast a glance toward the road. It sounded as though a new garrison was stationing at the Tower, but it was much too early for that.

“Come on, Bree.” Snatching her bowl in one hand, she shepherded the dog toward the house with the other.

The dog whined but followed. Sabine left the tomatoes on her doorstep in the customary position of the gift-tithe. It looked like she would not be able to share them with Auda, after all. She shooed Bree into the house, then walked along the path of white pebbles to stand just inside her gate.

The sounds of horses and marching men grew near, accompanied by voices speaking the throaty, sharp language of the Rüddan. Soon three pale, slender officers rode past on cantering horses, followed by a small command of infantry. Sabine thought they would pass her by until one of the fore-riders dropped back to ride along the line of march.

She should have known better—the Rüddan never passed up an opportunity to take what they claimed as their right.

Like all of his race, the rider was built slender and tall, his pale skin the color of starched lace. His long white hair flowed, unbound, down his back to just below his shoulders. As pale as his skin was, it carried a dark hue as well, as if tinted with a yellow that might have been brown if it were stronger. A lightweight shirt of black chain mail glinted beneath his deep burgundy surcoat. The symbol of a wild boar clutched in the grip of a soaring griffin was emblazoned across his chest, three silver caltraps shining above the griffin’s head.

A new Captain of the Tower? Sabine barely managed to keep the surprise from showing on her face. That would explain the rider she saw yesterday. He must have been a herald, sent to announce this unusual arrival. Sabine wondered if this captain would replace the current one or govern beside him. Either way, this did not bode well.

Smoothing her skirt once more and squaring her shoulders, Sabine prepared herself to face whatever was coming.

 

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